US President Barack Obama’s offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) takes place at a time of heightened chaos across the region. The strategy is both complex and risky. It requires multilateral cooperation, to date unseen competence on the part of the Iraqi military and politicians, and for an ISIL response to be contained. Yet, the rewards for all parties concerned could be worth the investment in this new “coalition of the willing”. In short, everyone could be a winner, excepting those civilians stuck in the middle.
Why is this? To date, the rapid emergence of ISIL has been characterised by those who have so obviously lost. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi military and the unfortunate hostages who’ve met gruesome deaths, stand out. But the brutality of ISIL and its willingness to tear down conventional norms of what the state should look like in the Middle East, place it in the crosshairs of almost all the players in the region. This confluence of interests in destroying or at least significantly marginalising ISIL was effectively shown in an infographic published this week in the Economist, put simply – everyone hates ISIL.
What does this mean in more detail? For Iraq, the fight against ISIL is a chance for the new prime minister, Haider al-Abbadi, to deliver a genuine and legitimate national unity government that brings Iraqis together rather than forcing them apart on the basis of sect or ethnicity. With the might of US air power, logistics and intelligence behind him, Abbadi will have the chance to fashion a vision of Iraq for all Iraqis that balances a traditional Baghdad-centric nationalism with the realities of federal demands from across the country and in particular from the Kurds and the Sunnis. Resource sharing, political recognition, and national reconciliation are the priorities for Abbadi with the threat of ISIL attacks being used as a common enemy going forward.
Stronger Kurdish role
The Kurds have got their way with the US promising military support to the Peshmerga and green lighting the more assertive Kurdish voices within Baghdad’s political infrastructure. ISIL has already allowed the Kurds to seize Kirkuk, the “Kurdish Jerusalem”, and could now help them both increase the strength of their military and give them a stronger constitutional role within Iraq as a whole.
Turkey faces the threat of ISIL recruitment from its own population and will look to a potential UN agreement on shutting down transit routes for money and fighting to protect its own domestic security. Ankara has already put out feelers for the idea of creating a “buffer zone” along its border with Syria to do this, and will feel it has the license to be far more ambitious in this regard under the auspices of Obama’s new offensive. Likewise Lebanon will use the fight against ISIL to justify further steps to try and close its border with Syria.
Indeed, one of the major non-state winners from the offensive against ISIL may be those companies who provide border security solutions from high-tech fences to surveillance techniques. Unsurprisingly, global arms companies also stand to win with Bank of America releasing a note forecasting that air power Systems stock may well rebound this year as a result of the escalating regional conflict centred on ISIL.
For the US, the ISIL crisis is an opportunity for Obama, with public opinion behind him, to bolster his foreign policy credentials by delivering justice to the killers of US journalists. Meanwhile in countries like the UK and France, ISIL could be used to build better communal relations. Indeed, ISIL extremism is being rejected by mainstream Muslim communities with a coalition writing to the British Prime Minister last week suggesting that ISIL be referred to as the “Un-Islamic State” (UIS).
China and Russia have long been preaching about the “terrorist dilemma” emanating from the region and may well support (Ukraine depending) a counterterrorism operation against ISIL. Similarly, while Iran has rejected the idea of US air strikes inside Syria, with negotiations between the E3+3 and Tehran on a comprehensive agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear programme reaching a decisive moment, it could find a more pragmatic private accommodation with a US policy in Syria limited at attacking ISIL but avoiding any slide to regime change.
Syria, as ever, is where things become more complex. There is wide acceptance that ISIL won’t be defeated until the Syrian civil war ends and unless Obama has an effective plan for the Syrian conflict then the strategy will only go so far. The current plan’s Syrian dimensions are somewhat vague and based around the rehashed policy of supporting vetted “Syrian moderates” along with US airpower.
While the Syrian regime may privately welcome having a common enemy as the US, and offering intelligence in support, there are wider questions at play. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi expressed astonishment over the participation of what he called “terrorism-supporting countries” in an operation aimed at combating terrorism. While the region may align on an anti-ISIL strategy the traditional fault lines as what to do about the Bashar al-Assad regime are no closer to being bridged.
So the offensive against ISIL offers geopolitical green lights across the main regional and international players. But there are losers and as ever in the era of the refugee these are likely, certainly in the short term, to be those civilians currently living in ISIL-controlled areas. Tens of thousands have already been displaced by a combination of violence in Iraq, Syria, and the ISIL emergence, the addition of this new Obama campaign will place those remaining in the eye of the gathering storm.
James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.